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Israel-Palestine war: Latin America distances itself from the US and Israel over Gaza assault

As international pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza mounts, leaders across Latin America take a more critical stance towards Israel
People carry signs reading: "Palestine, the people's rage does not forget" during a demonstration in support of Palestinians outside Israel's embassy in Bogota, Colombia, on 10 October (Reuters)

The leaders of Bolivia, Chile and Colombia have taken significant steps to diplomatically distance themselves from Israel, following the latest attacks on the Gaza Strip. 

Honduras said on Friday it was recalling its ambassador to Israel for "consultations" over Israel's "violations of international humanitarian law in the Gaza Strip".

On Tuesday, Bolivia’s leftist government severed all ties with Israel in response to the ongoing bombardments in Gaza, which have killed over 9,227 Palestinians – with over 3,826 children among the casualties – in response to Hamas’ deadly surprise attack on Israel on 7 October. At least 1,400 Israelis were killed during the attacks and around 242 taken hostage.

Bolivia is the first Latin American country to cut ties with Israel. 

Speaking at a press conference held in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, Freddy Mamani, Bolivia’s deputy foreign minister, said the decision to cut ties came in “repudiation and condemnation of the aggressive and disproportionate Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip and its threat to international peace and security”.

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Israel’s offensive on Gaza has drawn widespread criticism for its potential violation of international humanitarian law, with the UN Human Rights Office stating that the recent attacks on the Jabalia refugee camp may amount to “war crimes”.

Bolivia’s decision came just one day after President Luis Arce met with Mahmoud Elalwani, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Bolivia, on Monday. 

It also follows repeated public denouncements from former president Evo Morales, who is once again running for office. He recently called for Bolivia to “declare Israel a terrorist state”.

Some analysts claim Bolivia’s political stance on the issue may be fostered by the internal political rifts between Arce and Morales. 

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“Bolivia does not have very significant economic ties to Israel–Palestine and does not have a domestic constituency that is particularly focussed on the region. It’s really domestic politics that is driving this – it’s the rivalry between the current and former presidents,” Michael Paarlberg, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told MEE. 

“The move to cut ties is part of a desire by President Arce to maintain control over his party coalition and to stave off a challenge from the more radical former President Morales.”

But this is not the first time Bolivia has taken a strong position. In 2009, it severed diplomatic relations with Israel due to its invasion of the Gaza Strip. Diplomatic ties between the two were not reinstated until 2020, during the presidency of right-wing Jeanine Anez.

Ambassadors recalled

Just hours after Bolivia severed ties with Israel, both Colombia and Chile announced they were recalling their ambassadors to Israel. 

'Washington can no longer call Bogota and get exactly what it asks for'

- Elizabeth Dickinson, analyst

Colombian president Gustavo Petro took to X to criticise the latest wave of Israeli attacks, which he billed as a “massacre of the Palestinian people.”

Since the outbreak of violence on 7 October and the escalating Israeli retaliation seen across Palestinian territories, Colombia’s leftist leader has taken a very vocal stance on the social media platform X – comparing the situation in Gaza to the Auschwitz concentration camps, labelling the Israeli military as Nazis, and classifying its acts as “war crimes”.

Colombia has traditionally been one of the United States' strongest allies in the region and traditionally echoed American foreign policy interests in the region.

That balance of power has shifted recently, which means “Washington can no longer call Bogota and get exactly what it asks for,” Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group, told Middle East Eye.

“Where the pressure can have an impact, particularly if it's coming from a number of different countries, is in Washington. It is something that [Colombia] can now put on the agenda with the US in conversations about foreign policy issues,” Dickinson said. 

Chilean condemnation

Petro’s Chilean counterpart, President Gabriel Boric, also recalled the country’s ambassador to Israel. Chile is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world, and the Palestinian cause is one that holds significant weight within the country. 

Boric initially took a more diplomatic stance, though on Tuesday he condemned the ”unacceptable violations of International Humanitarian Law that Israel has incurred in the Gaza Strip”.

Boric is a staunch defender of global human rights, and his “attitude towards what's happening now in Palestine has changed because now it's pretty clear that Israel is committing genocide,” Nadia Silhi-Chahin, a Chilean-Palestinian scholar, told MEE.

“These countries risk a lot when they do something like Chile. In order to oppose Israel, Boric could be labelled an antisemite or Chile could be punished for going too far. Most people wouldn't understand or wouldn't want to pay that price only to be in solidarity with the Palestinians,” she said.

In 2014, then-Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, also recalled her country’s envoy to Israel in opposition to Israel’s "Operation Protective Edge" in Gaza, where over 2,200 Palestinians were killed. 

Domino effect

Brazil’s leftist president, Lula da Silva, shifted tone in recent days and took a more critical stance on Israel.

Despite an initially more cautious declaration, and even speaking with Israeli President Isaac Herzog to express his solidarity on 12 October, Lula recently criticised “the insanity of the prime minister of Israel [in] wanting to destroy the Gaza Strip”, and labelled Israel’s actions as “genocide”.

This openly critical stance of Israel that many major players in the region are taking reflects the regional decline of US foreign policy as a dictator of international diplomacy for Latin American powers.

“US influence in Latin America has been on the decline for a while. China's presence and influence in the region means that the US cannot dictate how countries respond. 

Israel-Palestine war: Latin American solidarity with Palestine draws stark contrast to West
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“There are many countries in the region that subscribe to the idea of multipolarity and their stances on Israel–Palestine are one expression of relative independence in foreign policy from the US,” Paarlberg told MEE.

Mexico’s leftist government on Wednesday echoed the criticism seen across Latin America, stating that Israel’s attacks “could amount to war crimes”. 

Argentina – traditionally more aligned with Israel –  has also seen a change in tone. The country is home to the largest and strongest Jewish community in Latin America, yet its foreign ministry denounced Israel’s “violation of international humanitarian law”, following attacks this week on the Jabalia refugee camp, where at least 100 people were killed.  

Public sympathy towards Palestine among the general Latin American populace remains high, following Israel’s bombing of the refugee camp.

However, two of Latin America’s staunchest left-wing and anti-imperial governments in Cuba and Venezuela have had uncharacteristically muted responses. 

Blanket condemnation of Israel from fellow Latin American leaders is unlikely to be seen, however, as many countries across the region still maintain close ties to the US and therefore refrain from risking relations with Washington and the domestic fallout that carries.

However, combined criticism from Latin leaders plus growing pressure from major international institutions and governing bodies could put pressure on the US. 

“A small country like Colombia obviously is not going to shift the needle on the situation, but speaking as a group, leftist leaders in Latin America are able to make a bit more of a dent in the conversation, particularly with regard to Washington,” Dickinson said.

That impact has already been seen, as President Boric raised his concerns over Israel’s attacks in a meeting with US President Joe Biden in Washington on Thursday.

Israeli reaction

The increasing condemnation and diplomatic friction between Israel and certain Latin American powers has evoked a timid reaction from Israel.

On X, the spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lior Hamat, put out a statement calling on “Colombia and Chile to explicitly condemn the Hamas terrorist organisation”.

“Israel expects Colombia and Chile to support the right of a democratic country to protect its citizens, and to call for the immediate release of all the abductees, and not align themselves with Venezuela and Iran in support of Hamas terrorism,” Hamat said.

Nonetheless, Paarlberg stated that the latest diplomatic denunciations from Latin America aren’t likely to deter Israel. 

“Israel has looked primarily to countries like the United States for support and would certainly like to have support from more countries in Latin America, but I don't believe that it considers that to be as strategically important as its relations with larger countries,” he said.

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